Somehow, a 26-year-old running back who had a grand total of 13 carries heading into the 2016 season has become the subject of great concern for many Bengals fans. That’s right, Rex Burkhead is going to get some serious suitors in free agency, and deservedly so. The fourth year back out of Nebraska had a breakout year, despite only getting six carries prior to Week 12. From that point on, he rushed 68 times for 305 yards (a healthy 4.5 yards per carry). And Burkhead saved his best for last, steamrolling the Baltimore Ravens with 119 yards on 27 carries and two touchdowns in the last game of the season.
For highlights of Burkhead’s best plays, watch the following video:
Can Burkhead carry a significant load?
At 5’10” and 210 pounds, the same question that surrounded Giovani Bernard pertains to Burkhead: is he big enough to be an every-down back? The answer: who cares? Remember, the Bengals re-signed Bernard to a three year, $15.5 million deal just last offseason. Assuming he is fully recovered from his ACL injury, Bernard can be relied on to carry the ball 10-15 times a game, leaving another 10 or so carries for Burkhead, or whoever is the Bengals’ other top running back next year. And Jeremy Hill will still in be in Cincinnati in 2017, meaning the smaller backs won’t necessarily be relied upon in short yardage or goal line situations.
In the video above, it is clear that Burkhead runs hard, something the Bengals didn’t see enough of from Hill, the incumbent starter. Sure you can chalk that up to Burkhead’s upcoming free agency, but a lot of fans probably recall Burkhead has always run with determination and, dare we say, desperation. Perhaps that’s a result of being drafted in the sixth round, and thus, being in constant danger of losing a roster spot).
Here are some of his best attributes as a runner:
Decisiveness and embracing contact
These two attributes are made apparent in this 11 yard scamper against the Cleveland Browns in Week 7. Right from the handoff he sees the hole opening to his right and wastes no time juking around his blocking and into the open gap. And his fear of getting hit is non-existent. The drive and force he gets from his lower half to power through contact for extra yards is expressed by the fact that he embraced the contact to begin with. His low center of gravity in his running style also helps him bounce off defenders with great balance.
An innate ability to create for himself.
This 10 yard play against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 15 is why blaming the running game on the offensive line isn’t always valid. As the play side of the line gets very little push, Burkhead slows his momentum and kicks back outside, sucking the defensive line in, and getting an advantage to get the edge. His vision and footwork allow him to consistently achieve positive yardage on each carry he gets.
A downhill mentality.
On this 10 yard iso run against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 17, the false jump cut allows his lead blockers to establish positioning, and he explodes through the hole, and gets a few yards after contact at the tail end. When he sticks his foot in the ground, Burkhead’s explosion can jump off the screen for his size and stature.
Having balance means you can maintain acceleration through tight areas and sustain power in your lower half, and that’s exactly what we see from Burkhead on this 9 yard run again against the Ravens. He gets skinny through the small crevice in the line, and finishes strong after meeting defenders through the hole.
Whether he remains in Cincinnati or not, you can expect Burkhead to surpass 100 carries for the first time in his career in 2017. In fact, it wouldn’t be all that surprising if he topped 150 attempts. And with his ability in the passing game, Burkhead should become an impact player next season. The big question is, will that be in Cincinnati?
In case you missed it, John, Dr. Hodgie and I had a short discussion about the Bengals’ options at running back, including where Burkhead fits in: